The five things you need to know on Friday, March 10…
1) PICK N NICS
Although Theresa May and Philip Hammond have been around a long time in politics, it’s sometimes easy to forget they - and their advisers - are still relatively inexperienced in their current posts. And that inexperience has been all too obvious in the fierce Budget backlash over the self-employed National Insurance row.
Their woeful inability to forecast the reaction of Tory newspapers, backbenchers and voters combined with classic Treasury arrogance to make a lethal political cocktail. It was no coincidence that Iain Duncan Smith, himself burned by years of derision by the Treasury, was among the first to rally the Tory rebels against the NI hike.
The first hint of a retreat came when Hammond muttered about listening to colleagues. Then No.10 refused four times at a Lobby briefing to rule out a rethink of the plans. Whips got word of texts being exchanged between Labour and Tory rebels on a wrecking amendment (the Tory Right is much more better at organising a rebellion than the Tory Left). By the time Theresa May took her press conference in Brussels last night, she had decided to press the pause button and delay any change until after a summer report on other self-employed plans.
May made a show of unity with her Chancellor, defending the principle of tackling the ‘unfairness’ in tax treatment of employed and self-employed. Will the NI rise be amended so it doesn’t hit those in the lower tax band? That would cut the tax take and undermine the fairness argument, but it would reduce the pain. Will new parental pay rights really take the sting out of it?
Some of the 18 Tory rebel MPs - one more than the magic (working) majority of 17 - think the latest gambit is another too-clever-by-half idea. They want the tax rise stopped, period. Significantly, the Sun isn’t being bought off by the delaying tactic and launches a fresh campaign against it today. Some MPs think that mad as the Osborne tax lock was, it was a manifesto commitment and if broken will undermine the 2020 manifesto.
May clung to the fiction that no pledge had been broken last night, but her own minister Guto Bebb had already told BBC Radio Cymru “I believe we should apologise. I will apologise to every voter in Wales that read the Conservative manifesto in the 2015 election.” There will be no need to apologise if the hike doesn’t go ahead.
There’s a Cami-NICS angle too now. An ITVNews clip of David Cameron at the Iraq/Afghan memorial yesterday appears to show him saying that breaking the ‘manifesto..a stupid idea’. Lipreaders will tell us more in due course. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon nods, but defence minister Mike Penning just looks on.
The blame game has begun behind the scenes, with one Government source telling the Times that the Treasury team were caught cold: “They just forgot the manifesto”. But others suggest No.10 were as blindsided as their counterparts. Hammond has not kept his Budget secret from the PM like Brown did from Blair. They discussed it several times. The FT suggests Hammond was made aware of the possible backlash when the Sun had a leak of the story on Saturday. Hammond discussed the looming political and media problems with his staff over the weekend but still went ahead. Don’t forget too, that telling line from a Treasury official in the Times on Thursday that they knew this would be a ‘George HW Bush Budget’ ie that a ‘read my lips, no new taxes’ pledge would be broken.
James Slack, the PM’s new official spokesman is the Daily Mail’s former political editor and knows better than anyone why his old paper and others have slammed the Government. Maybe, just maybe, if he’d been in post a few weeks earlier, he could have warned both his new boss and the Treasury that this idea would never fly in Fleet Street. But ultimately advisers can only advise. It’s ministers who decide. That’s what the PM and Hammond now have to do. And dumping, not amending or compensating, the NI rise may be the only thing that gets them out of this hole.
2) BREXIT COUNTDOWN
While Theresa May may want to slow things down on national insurance, is she planning to speed things up on triggering the formal Article 50 process for Brexit? She said last night that EU leaders had “made clear to me that they want to get on with negotiations - and so do I”.
No.10 also announced the PM would do her usual post-EU summit statement to the Commons on Tuesday, not Monday as usual. With the EU Withdrawal Bill due to clear its Lords and Commons stages on Monday night, that sparked speculation that she was keeping her options open for triggering Brexit on Tuesday to coincide with her Commons performance. Downing St insists the reason is more mundane in that the PM has a Commonwealth Day memorial service at Westminster Abbey on Monday. Let’s see.
Linford Christie used to talk about sprinting from ‘the B of the Bang’. Some around May want her to create a bit of momentum by tearing out of the blocks on ‘the B of the Brexit’, triggering Article 50 a fortnight before her own self-imposed deadline of ‘the end of March’.
Still, will there have to be less haste in getting a trade deal? The Telegraph’s Europe editor Peter Foster points out the PM said last night the two-year Article 50 talks are to "set the framework" of a future UK-EU deal. Which may seem to some less ambitious than her Lancaster House speech, and may be an acceptance of the reality that a transitional trade deal will be needed.
3) NEVER MIND THE BALLOTS
As I pointed out yesterday, one Tory MP texted me amid the row over National Insurance to point out that White Van Man was not looking likely to vote Labour. And the latest, post-Budget Times/YouGov opinion poll makes grim reading for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. The Tories have a massive 19 point lead (44% to 25%). And the latest ICM poll puts the Tories an unprecedented 31 points ahead of Labour on the economy.
McDonnell had a problem with trains, planes and automobiles, so he couldn’t make it to Sunderland on time for Question Time. But Scottish Labour party leader and noted Corbynsceptic Kezia Dugdale, who replaced him on the show, joked that Labour would do ‘brilliantly’ in a snap election.
The Lib Dems last night won yet another council by-election last night, taking a West Oxfordshire seat from the Tories after a 34% increase in their vote. Obviously a major health warning applies to ward by-elections (and they are still hovering around 10% in national opinion polls), but expect that ‘LibDemFightback’ narrative repeated at their spring conference next week.
And Labour jitters have started about the Lib Dems in the Manchester Gorton by-election. I’ve written a story HERE on party in-fighting over candidate selection, and why Corbyn ally Rebecca Long-Bailey was barred from the NEC panel in charge. The Libs came just 5,000 votes behind in 2010, the seat is 60% Remain. But surely Labour will win comfortably…won’t it?
The Guardian reports that Gordon Brown, who has previously been reluctant to give his own account of the Blair-Brown years, will publish his memoirs this Autumn. That’s guaranteed to help keep the infighting storyline going at Labour party conference.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this kid invade a US TV weatherman’s live broadcast with his own forecast of ‘farts and toots’.
4) HEALTH N’ SAFETY ALERT
Last night on Question Time, an NHS staffer in the audience told Cabinet Minister Karen Bradley that the Government “just doesn’t get it” when it comes to the crisis in elderly care. The man, who sounded like a geriatrics doctor, pointed to long waits in A&E for pensioners on admission, and long waits for them to be discharged afterwards.
And yesterday, away from all the post-Budget noise, the stats on the NHS were truly awful. The Mirror splashes its front page on the worst monthly waiting times in A&E ever recorded. The target of seeing 95% of patients in four hours has been missed in England since July 2015 and there was a record low of 85.1% in January.
Things were so bad that Jeremy Hunt warned hospitals they had to get back to hitting the target to protect ‘patient safety’. And despite the £2bn extra for the NHS in the Budget, critics say it was too little, too late (and say the £100m for 100 new A&E triage units is paltry).
5) KATE WITH DESTINY
Admirers of Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor say she is one of the nicest MPs of the 2015 intake. She’s also a passionate supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but one who is reluctant to get involved in the public spats over Labour’s future. Today, we publish a HuffPost interview with her and it gives an insight into her political philosophy.
Osamor declares that Labour ‘neglected’ seats like Copeland for too long. “No seat is safe. No seat should be treated as safe. Because unfortunately that means it’s taken for granted.” She says that Manchester Gorton has to be fought with a local candidate in a local campaign. “It can’t be a national Labour campaign there.”
Osamor backs all-BAME shortlists for some seats, attacks Owen Jones as ‘an academic’ who doesn’t ‘understand what struggle is’ and criticises ‘odds and sods’ trying to take Momentum too far left. She also declares that Labour MPs should copy Corbyn by doing regular door-knocking in their constituencies. “All MPs have to be knocking on doors at least once a week for an hour,” she says.
Osamor adds that she went to South Thanet for Corbyn’s leadership campaign, she feared she was entering “UKIP land.” “I was scared because I was on my own getting a train down there.” But when she saw 500 people at his rally she felt reassured. “That was one of the times when it all started getting through to me. There was something for this man. People are supporting him. Even in Ukip-land we had Labour people that came out and they listened and they were rapturous and they were warm and welcoming.”
Read the interview in full HERE.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Listen to us chinwag HERE about the Budget fall-out, Tory rebellions, Brexit and Jess Phillips’ leadership remarks. Our weekly quiz is on Budget history.
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